How important is the role of parents who have a child in a residential school or program for struggling teens? Very important is the answer to which private parent-choice schools and programs are coming. While parent involvement is still optional or minimal in most public funded programs (sometimes for good reason), most quality private parent-choice schools and programs are expanding the ways parents can be part of the program.
When I first started with a private parent-choice emotional growth school in 1984, many of the staff still felt the parents were the enemy. The attitude seemed to be: "You screwed up your kid, give him/her to us and don't bother us, and we'll fix him/her." Despite this holdover from the general attitude of the 1970s, private schools began to realize that parents were the key to success. Some started to initiate parent weekends, parent seminars and other ways to pull the parents into the healing process. That process has grown to where virtually every quality school or program for struggling teens has developed an extensive program for the parents. Sometimes parents work a parallel program at home while their children are at the school so the entire family changes together. Other times, schools/ programs have parents visit to share part of the program or to attend parent weekends, which are developed as training and collaboration between the schools and the parents.
Every year, more schools and programs initiate formal parent programs, and existing ones become more extensive. This is very healthy in developing a team approach between the school and parents in helping their child. It also encourages a more healthy view that these are family problems not just a child's problem.
As a representation of the expanding role of parents in schools, I had the honor of attending the parent weekend at Valley View School in Massachusetts, October 13-15, 2006. An important part of the weekend was that parents took the opportunity to visit with their sons. Many families went out for dinner in the surrounding communities. Parent visits to a school or program like this are almost a universal step in all quality schools and programs with special needs students and are vital in reintegrating families and helping the healing process. When old disruptive issues come up during these outings, school officials are there to help the family work through them. Throughout the weekend, families also met with counselors and school staff. These were opportunities to work with the family as a system and, again, this is an important part of the whole healing process for the boys and families enrolled at Valley View. It is commonly used throughout the national network of these residential schools and programs.
Like many other schools and programs throughout the country, the parent weekend at Valley View had much more. There were several opportunities through the open house and scheduled parent meetings to allow parents and staff to communicate one-to-one and for parents to get to know each other as well. This not only allowed the parents to exchange phone numbers and emails to develop their own support groups but also but also gave the parents a chance to get to know all the staff who work with their child or would be working with their child in the future. In addition this was a good opportunity for the staff to explain their philosophy, outline what is currently happening in the school, and answer all the general questions any of the parents might have.
In the session I attended with all the parents on Saturday, the topics were wide ranging from nutrition to academic curriculum to emotional growth. One segment that generated a lot of discussion was about meals the children are served. Understandably, parents are very concerned about nutrition for their children. By allowing this topic, the school was showing they were open to suggestions and ideas to better serve their students and willing to listen to all parent concerns and respond to them. This topic, more than any other discussed while I was there, showed the extent the school was willing to go to establish a true school-parent team in working for the healing of the children.
One of the most important trends in private residential schools and programs for children with problems has been to bring parents into the loop. Family system work is now common among the quality schools and programs with several benefits. By developing a school-parent team approach, the students find it harder to turn parents against the school or otherwise follow a divide and conquer manipulation. In addition, parents feel valued by being able to influence the school's decisions thus empowering them as parents. And perhaps most important, it makes transitions back home more likely to succeed since both parents and children have been interacting throughout the placement as facilitated by the school or program.
January 09, 2007
I read your article, Parents in the Loop, with great interest. At Monarch, we have been incorporating families into our wilderness program for years now. Every third week, students come out of the backcountry and work directly with their families for a full week (individual family intensives, multi family groups, meetings with the education director, field staff and therapists, multi family community service projects and social events, etc.). Additionally, we extend an open invitation to parents and siblings to join their son/daughter in the backcountry portion of the program. This invitation is accepted regularly by parents, with mothers and fathers taking time off of work, flying literally across the country and backpacking with their sons/daughters and participating in the wilderness experience.
We are clear that the old model of sending a youth away to treatment with minimal parental involvement is archaic, short sighted and in some cases, unethical. Quite frankly, it is easier for a program to support the identified patient model, though, because it makes it easier on the program. Afterall, it is challenging and risky to insist that the parents -- who are paying the bill -- look at their own role in the family system. We believe that lengths of stay would be dramatically decreased and kids and families would get healthier all around if there was a wider push towards "getting the parents in the loop."
A few of the consultants who work with you, Loi and Larry, have placed youth in our program over the years and can speak to what we are doing and the level of parental satisfaction with our program. To my knowledge, there is not any other wilderness program -- perhaps any other therapeutic program at all -- that is involving the parents and siblings to the extent that we are. We invite you out to experience it yourself.